#19: Tinker, Sailor, Researcher, Spy

Yes, a play on the title of the 2011 movie "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," to describe a day in the life of a right whale researcher. The first job of the research day is to check the boat (our beloved Nereid is a 29' Dyer), making sure all the fluids are full and the engine is in mechanical order for the day. Then, once the team has loaded and stowed our gear onboard, one of us takes the helm to safely navigate the Nereid out the Lubec Channel, across the Grand Manan Channel and into the Bay of Fundy- a journey of two hours in duration, sometimes in thick fog. During our beeline transit into the Bay, our team is at work and on watch for marine creatures. Once we get into the Bay, we start our tracklines and hopefully encounter right whales, when we can essentially spy on their behavior.

The Nereid heads out with the sunrise for a day of surveying! Photos: Marianna Hagbloom

During a survey earlier this month, our research was interrupted by the few words you never want to hear or say on a boat; "I smell something burning!" Monica, our most experienced tinkerer and boat captain, was on watch; I called to her and told her what had been said.  She scrambled back from the bow to troubleshoot the problem. We used our noses to try and isolate the source of the burning smell - was it electrical, rubber, plastic??? Kelsey was at the helm and quickly shut down everything electrical- the engine, computer, radar, GPS navigation unit. As we lifted up the engine hatch, the smell became much stronger.

Monica and Moe, determining the source of the problem.

We narrowed down the source of the smell to either the alternator or the alternator belt. After more tinkering and discussion, we realized that the alternator belt was rubbing up against a bolt on the engine. Luckily for us, the weather was very calm, and although we really didn't want to start taking things apart at sea, we didn't want to lose the rest of our survey day to motoring home early, or worse- the need for a tow.  As Monica says, there are a few breakdowns you don't want to get towed in for, and one of those is for the alternator belt. Always prepared for the worst, we never leave the dock without a variety of extra parts on board. We found our spare alternator belt and consulted our log book for the details of the last time we had to change the belt, back in 2009. Monica is an ace with a wrench, but had not changed the belt on the Nereid before, and I am an amateur at best with a wrench, but had helped with the last belt replacement in 2009.  And so we put our knowledge together while the rest of the crew napped, ate, and/or looked on with amusement admiration. With a little bit of straining, grunting, and mild cursing we managed to remove the old belt, which turned out to be quite worn on closer inspection.

An unidentified crew member finds a comfortable napping spot.

The new belt was fitted into place around the pulleys, making sure that it was well-seated in the grooves. When Kelsey started the engine and revved the Nereid back up to speed, the smell was gone! Everything was working well. We lost just under two hours of survey time due to our breakdown, and although the right whales eluded us for the rest of the day, we were pretty pleased at that our tinkering talents had let us keep sailing for the day. If you want to learn more about alternators and alternator belts try this link, however, always easier in a garage than at sea!

Monica and Moe get the new belt in place, and we're good to go!

- Moe


#18: A Special Day in the Bay

Our days at sea would not be possible without the support of our funding partners. One of the greatest joys of our field season is to share a day at sea with right whales and our donors, who rarely get the opportunity to enjoy time with these whales! On September 14th, we had the distinct pleasure of taking two of our partners from Irving Oil- John Logan (Project Manager) and Carolyn Van der Veen (Public Affairs)- into the Bay of Fundy.

John Logan on the Nereid.

John has been involved in our research, conservation and education efforts for right whales since the partnership began in 1998.
In fact, it was John who first contacted us that year to investigate how we could work together on the issue of reducing the risks of vessel strikes to right whales. The unlikely partnership of biologists and an oil company working together has resulted in a conservation success story for right whales in the Bay of Fundy.

Carolyn Van der Veen on the Nereid.

Carolyn has been furthering the understanding of right whales through several right whale education campaigns online. Check out the "Fluent in Whale" game on Facebook, an inspiring video about our partnership on YouTube, and information about the program on their corporate website. Irving also promotes our Right Whale Research Program at their retail outlets in the Maritimes and New England.

September 14th was a less-than-bluebird day, but our guests were game for adventure on the choppy seas that the wind was stirring up. And wouldn't you know it that we observed the highest number of right whales in one day for the season? We had eight to ten individuals, many of them new for the summer! Some old-timers appeared, like Manta (Catalog #1507), Dollar (#1332), and Meridian (#1403). We also sighted three   younger whales; Catalog #3832, #3890, and #3808 (our first whale of this season).

Meridian, named for the wrapping head scar that remains from a severe entanglement event. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

While being jostled around on the R/V Nereid, Amy Knowlton was able to snag two very valuable photos of Catalog #1331. We don't know when #1331 was born, but we added him to the Catalog in 1981. He was last observed during an aerial survey on November 26, 2011, when his right flank revealed new propeller cuts from an encounter with a small boat. Although we only caught a brief glimpse of #1331, his scars seem to be healing well! This sighting was an appropriate reminder that even though we've made enormous strides in reducing the risk of ship strikes from large vessels, educating mariners who sail on small boats about right whales and how they are vulnerable to encounters is still a relevant and important task.

The first vessel-based photographs of Catalog #1331's propeller scars show healing. Photo: Amy Knowlton

Before we began our transit back to land, we came across three humpback whales who put on a show for our guests! Have you ever seen two humpbacks breach simultaneously? Then you can imagine the amazement of everyone on the Nereid when all THREE humpbacks breached within less than one second of each other! Difficult to capture, below is a collage of this incredible event:

Three humpbacks breaching together! Photo: Amy Knowlton

We had such a rewarding day on the water that there really couldn't have been a better way to say thank you to our funding partners for their willingness to collaborate with us, and for the work they allow us to do. There will be a story on the success of right whale conservation and steps for future efforts in the Saint John Telegraph Journal on September 28th by journalist Jenifer Pritchett and photographer Cindy Wilson, who also braved the elements with us to learn more about right whales in the Bay of Fundy. Keep your eyes peeled for the article if it's distributed in your area!

- Marianna and Moira


#17: Eavesdropping on Mother/Calf pairs

There’s something about being on an all-female research vessel, searching for a right whale mother and calf pair in the grey palette of the Bay of Fundy, that makes you think about our gender. More specifically – motherhood. How exactly does the relationship between a mother and her calf evolve? Can this rate be observed (and subsequently measured) from studying their behavior and vocalizations? As we round out our third year of a five-year project  led by Susan Parks (a Professor and bioacoustician at Syracuse University; check out the Parks Lab Website and read about updates on their Field Blog) and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), we are finally starting to accrue data to tackle these questions. Our research goal: study the interactions between right whale mother/calf pairs over the calf’s first year. We accomplish this by following them from their winter calving grounds off Florida and Georgia to their springtime feeding areas off Massachusetts, and finally to their summer mating grounds here in the Bay of Fundy (BOF). Our research tools: concurrent behavioral and acoustic sampling from a small boat platform. Our current BOF subjects: Catalog #3390 and her calf. 

The acoustic team from Parks Lab at Syracuse University and NEFSC in the Bay of Fundy, listening to right whale mom #3390 and her calf! Photo: Monica Zani

#3390 is the the only mother sighted thus far in BOF. Researchers aren't sure of her birth year, but she was first observed in 2003 as a juvenile. She has suffered three fishing gear entanglements, leaving her with noticeable white scars on her peduncle (tail stock) and flukes. Her calf, an almost-weaned male, is her first known offspring. Thus far in our field efforts, I’ve had the opportunity to follow #3390 and her calf three times in the southeast U.S. calving grounds during the winter, and now this summer, three times in BOF. 

Notice the increase in separation distance between #3390 and her calf from Southeast U.S. to BOF.

Deploying hydrophones (microphones designed to record or listen to underwater sound), we are able to eavesdrop on the subsurface behavior of these elusive individuals. In the southeast, we recorded roughly 12 hours with #3390 and her calf. The number of potential calls we can attribute to this pair are in the single digits. So far here in the northeast, we've recorded just shy of 5 hours with #3390 and her calf. The number of potential calls we can attribute to this pair are well in the two hundreds!

It's clear that the lapse in time has revealed a more vocal mother and calf pair. Time has also shown a larger calf, now bulked up with his mother’s fat reserves; greater separation distances between the mother and her calf, as the mother feeds on scattered zooplankton patches and the calf prepares to be weaned; and more interactions between both the mother and the calf with other right whale individuals in the population. 

Spectrogram (visual representation of acoustic signals) of 3 calls produced by the calf of #3390. Time is represented in seconds on the horizontal axis and frequency in kilohertz on the vertical axis.

Combining concurrent acoustic and behavioral data, we can start to ask questions about what exactly these vocalizations are revealing. Are they reunion events, as the mother and calf find their way back to each other in the void of the ocean? Are they separation events, as the calf prepares to leave the mother and explore? “Be back by 10PM, Mom.” Or perhaps they are teaching events, as the mother tries to pass on the right whale repertoire so the calf can communicate with the population at large? As the BOF season wraps up, we're looking forward to analyzing our data to shed some light on these questions. The more we understand a year in the life of right whale mother/calf pairs, the more we can do to ensure their protection. In the interim though, we’ll keep listening…  

-Sarah Mussoline
Research assistant, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 


#16: When There's a Gale...

...don't set sail!

Today, there is a gale warning in effect for our region. The current marine forecast is: "Wind south 25 to 35 knots, diminishing to northwest 15 to 20 knots this afternoon, then veering northerly 20 to 25 knots near midnight." We've been experiencing gusts from 25-38 mph since last night! As if that wasn't enough to keep us out of the Bay, there was a torrential downpour this morning that lasted for hours.

Plenty of whitecaps this morning.

Here's a short video clip to demonstrate these strong gusts:



#15: Two new whales for the season

When the crew wakes up at 5 AM in September, it feels like the dead of night. It is much colder than any August morning, and the sun doesn’t appear until around 6 AM. Yet we were thrilled to get an early wake-up call on September 12, after four consecutive days on shore. The winds had settled from the passing weather systems, and there was no fog in sight. The R/V Nereid headed out at 6:15 AM hoping to find more right whales.

The first whales we encountered were Catalog #3390 and her calf. Her calf might be the best documented baby right whale, ever. Despite the fact that we have seen them regularly this season, we still enjoy photographing and watching the pair. Seeing a healthy mom and calf in the Bay of Fundy is an encouraging sight when working with a critically endangered species.

#3390 and her calf, traveling together. Photo: Amy Knowlton

Later in the day, we came across two more right whales that we haven't seen yet this season- Catalog #1332 and #1981. Both individuals had sloughing skin on their heads, but #1332 (named "Dollar" for a scar on his head that looks like dollar sign) had significant coverage on his head and body. The skin of a right whale sloughs off pretty easily, and with a 2 cm skin layer, they have a lot to spare!

New England Aquarium researchers use the condition of the skin as one of the parameters to visually measure a whale’s over-all health. Skin will come off naturally if an individual breaches or rubs against another individual. However, when the sloughing of the skin is excessive, lesions appear on the skin, and/or orange cyamids are present (as opposed to white cyamids), it is possible that the whale is less healthy than usual. Before drawing conclusions though, it's important to look at the other parameters for a health assessment, which are: the body condition (the fatter, the better!), rake marks (two or more parallel lines) around the blowholes, and cyamids around the blowholes.

#1332, "Dollar", with mud on his head and skin sloughing on head and body. Photo: Kara Mahoney Robinson

While Dollar still looks plump, he is exhibiting some minor rake marks by his blowholes in addition to the skin sloughing. Perhaps Dollar's health will improve during his time in the Bay of Fundy. The mud on his head is an indication that he's going down to the seafloor to feed, so maybe he just needs a few good meals! Hopefully our team and other research teams will see him often during surveys this fall and winter so that we can monitor his health.

We saw several other species during our survey. Near the end of the day, we spotted a pair of humpback whales and many fin whales. We spent some time watching a group of five fin whales traveling together, which is always a treat. Fin whales are the second largest animal ever to live on earth, next to the blue whale. There was plenty of bird life as well, including puffins, shearwaters, phalaropes and storm petrels.

Hopefully the chilly September weather will attract more right whales to the Bay. Last year, the field season ended with lots of whales after a quiet August. Perhaps as the weather cools down, the whale activity will heat up!

-Maria Hall

Check out Maria's first blog


#14: Mid-Season Update

It's been a quiet season so far for the Right Whale Research teams. Our last day out on the water was September 7, which was cut short by the rough seas that developed. On that day, we saw the mom (Catalog #3390) and calf pair that we are now very familiar with, but those were the only right whales of the day. Including September 7, we have had 14 days out in the Bay of Fundy, and 8 of those days provided us with our current total of 43 right whale sightings (includes whales that we have seen multiple times). One of the whales  that we were happy to see for the first time this season was Black Heart (#3540), named for the heart-shaped bare spot at the front of her head.

Black Heart, #3540, surfaces with mud on her head. Photo: Meagan Moeyaert

On September 2, we did get to witness our first Surface Active Group (SAG) of the season. Although it was brief and consisted of only three whales, it was good to see some socialization and for us to get in shape for any larger SAGs that we might see later in the month.

Legs, #1170, lifts his head high out of the water, possible producing "gunshot" noises. 
Photo: Amy Knowlton

Aside from playful calves and socializing adult right whales, we have witnessed some really amazing humpback behaviors, like breaching and bubble feeding. We've also seen a variety of other species, including a bowhead whale, finback, minke and sperm whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoise, white-sided dolphins, blue sharks, basking sharks and ocean sunfish.

A humpback filters out water from the fish it just rounded up through use of a bubble net. The white flipper is visible under the water. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

We've been stuck on land recently because of the high winds and rain we experienced from the outskirts of Tropical Storm Leslie and a few other weather systems. We hope that our next day out on the water will be tomorrow, September 12. Maybe all that wind blew some right whales in our direction!



#13: Weir are You? Part Two

Continued from Part One...

The research vessel Callisto cleared the West Quoddy Head lighthouse and I punched a waypoint for Bradford Cove on Grand Manan Island. I was excited when the GPS calculated my distance as a short trip of 11.5 miles.  "Nice, we should be there in less than 30 minutes," I shouted to Marianna and Megan over the roar of the 225 horsepower outboard. The Grand Manan Channel (the waterway between Maine and Grand Manan Island), which is notorious for a rough sea state, was like glass and the air was very warm from the late afternoon sun.  The trip across the the channel was short and pleasant and we soon approached the shoreline of the southwestern side of Grand Manan.

 I slowed the Callisto to 8 knots of speed when we were about two miles from Bradford Cove. The original report of a whale in the weir near Bradford Cove had been of a mom trapped inside the weir with a calf on the outskirts. I wanted to approach the surrounding area slowly and with extreme caution in case there was indeed a calf in the area. As we approached the only weir in the area, Marianna began to scan the area using binoculars. Then, almost as if in slow motion, we all sighted the tell-tale sign of the right whale- a strong and very distinctive "V" shaped blow.

Distinct V-shaped blow. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Catalog #1708, entrapped in the herring weir. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

As we approached the outside of the weir, Marianna and Meagan began shooting photographs and video while I called back to our field station to alert folks that we were indeed confirming the presence of a right whale in the weir. Additionally, I wanted to confirm that it was a single whale in the weir, and was not a known mom for the year. In fact, it turned out the whale was a 25 year-old adult male, Catalog #1708!

Releasing a large whale from a weir is a slow process and needs to be done at the right time of day because of the tides. The Grand Manan Research Station was working hard to get in touch with the owner of the weir and to coordinate a response for the following morning. On Sunday morning, the owner of weir organized his crew and set out to see what they could do. The first step was to take down the top twine and the top poles of the weir (see diagram below). The hope was that as the tide rose at the end of the day, the whale could simply swim out of the weir. But as the evening came and the tide rolled in, the whale remained. A deeper, wider opening would need to be created.

Diagram by Eric Allaby, www.grandmanannb.com/weir.htm

The plan for Monday morning was to pull several of the stakes that had been driven into the sea floor to create the permanent framework of the weir, as well as removing the bottom twine, thereby partially disassembling the weir to create a larger opening that the whale would swim through. After a long, difficult morning of pulling eight poles, the whale finally swam out of the weir...in a hurry!

With eight stakes removed, #1708 swims out of the weir! Photo: Scott Fitzgerald, CWRT

The response and safe release of right whale #1708 from the weir was made possible by the hard work, dedication and coordination of many people and groups including the Grand Manan Research Station, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Campobello Whale Rescue Team and the New England Aquarium Right Whale Team. However, the owner of the weir in particular should be commended for his ability and willingness to partially disassemble his weir for the safe release of a right whale.

Back in open water, #1708 swims out of sight. Photo: Scott Fitzgerald, CWRT



#12: Weir are you? Part One...

Fishing weirs have been used in North America as a means capturing many different fish species for thousands of years. In Boston's Back Bay, remnants of fishing weirs thought to be about 2000 years old have been uncovered during various construction projects. Today, fishing weirs are still a widely used means of fishing in many parts of the world. In British Columbia, salmon is the target fish, while in Nova Scotia, weirs are used to catch shad.

A typical Bay of Fundy weir. Photo: www.brunswick.ca/Learn-About-Sardines/

In simple terms, a weir is a fish trap made of a series of wooden stakes with twine stretched between each stake to catch fish, but water is allowed to pass through freely. Weirs are built in tidal areas, so they are a perfect and efficient match for the Bay of Fundy! In most of the Bay, the target fish is herring (although flounder and mackeral are targeted in other parts of the Bay). Herring move to the surface and inshore at night. The weirs have a  "fence" that direct the herring into opening of the weir, where the fish begin to swim in a circular or figure-8 pattern which always directs them away from the opening. Unable to exit, the fish are eventually collected from the weir using a purse seine which draws fish to the surface and collects them into a condensed group when the net is pulled tighter (or pursed).

You can get in, but the chances of getting out are slim. Photo: http://www.gma.org/herring/default.asp

Herring is an important commercial fishery in the Bay of Fundy and is sold in many different forms. Herring can be consumed fresh, but can also be smoked and sold as Kippers. In the Atlantic, sardines sold in cans are simply a small herring. In addition, herring is used for bait for other commercial fisheries, such as crab and lobster, as well as being used in feed for pets, livestock, aquarium and aquaculture fish. Even the scales of herring (called "pearl essence") have been found useful by both the paint and cosmetic industries.

On occasion, cetaceans might enter the weir (here in the Bay of Fundy, it's usually harbor porpoise) and feed on the schooling herring. However, just like how the herring cannot find their way out once entering the weir, cetaceans can also find themselves in the same predicament. In 1991, the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station (GMWSRS) began a  harbor porpoise release program  to assist local fisherman with the safe release of porpoise found in their weirs. Since the start of the program, they have successfully released over 700 porpoise from the weirs around Grand Manan!

The GMWSRS Harbor Porpoise Release Program Team successfully releasing a harbor porpoise. 
Photo: www.gmwsrs.info/conservation/hprp/

On Saturday August 25th, GMWSRS received a call about a large whale (based on the description, possibly a right whale mom and calf pair) that was spotted in a herring weir on the western side of Grand Manan Island. On this particular day we were not on the water running our usual surveys in the Bay. Since the location of the weir made it much easier for us to respond from our port of Lubec than for other vessels out in the Bay to respond, we were asked to confirm and document the presence of an animal in the weir, and to identify the species. We decided to take our faster research boat, Callisto, since it was late in the day and and she could make the 13 mile trip in half the time the Nereid could. As I set out on the Callisto with Marianna and Meagan, I began to wonder about all the possible things that could be in the weir. Could it be a really large minke whale? Maybe even a basking shark? I figured it could also be humpback whale, since it had happened before... but I also knew of a couple past cases where right whales had entered weirs. As we cleared West Quoddy on that gorgeous Saturday afternoon I wondered.....could we actually be heading to a right whale entrapped in a weir?


Stay tuned for Part 2....